The sound and fury that is Hawke’s Bay
By KAY MOONEY
in her history of HB County
In the pattern of New Zealand history, Hawke’s Bay has been a loud, vivid and troublesome spot. It has often been harshly criticised but it has been a hard place to ignore.
Today, full of achievement and full of promise, its public affairs are conducted with decorum and one could be led to believe that the district rode serenely to prosperity on the sheep’s back. This is not so.
Hawke’s Bay fought its way along, greedily snatching every opportunity brawling and bickering, plotting and scheming and humming with life.
Time and again, the history of the country has been effected by action and uproar from Hawke’s Bay. In the very founding of the county system and the abolition of provinces, it was yells of fury from Hawke’s Bay sounding in the halls of Parliament that helped to decide the course of the bitterly-fought campaign.
When all-important land-laws were being framed, it was what was happening in Hawke’s Bay, however unethical, that helped to influence legislation.
The fact that Dunedin won the glory of the first shipment of frozen meat was Otago’s luck, for Hawke’s Bay had, for three years previously, been negotiating for ships fitted out for the frozen meat trade it was ready to launch.
Although Hawke’s Bay did not manage to get a seat on the gravy train that carried the South Island and Coromandel to prosperity in the gold rush days, this was not for want of determined prospecting in almost every stream and gully of the district.
The first land transactions may not throw too much credit on the early settlers but they serve to emphasise that the energetic force which got Hawke’s Bay up off the ground and on its way was the familiar private profit motive.
Most of the leading settlers were men who had accumulated a modest fortune by shrewd speculation in land in the early days. At the beginning of the Hawke’s Bay County story, they were no longer struggling settlers but small capitalists. The period of speculation in land was over; for the winners it was the day of speculation in industry; they had won the first leg of the double and they were ready for the second. The word capitalist had not, at that time, acquired sinister overtones. They used it proudly of themselves to indicate that they were men of substance with reserves of capital to put out to work for them.
We live today on the verge of a new world opened up to us by technology but we live in fear of it. Hawke’s Bay in 1876 was also on the threshold of a new world but, unlike us, was racing in to it with enthusiasm and excitement and a good deal of gambler’s courage. Steam power, electricity, photography, telegraphy, telephony, breaks-through in medicine, new social attitudes, opened up for them a world as startling as the one we feel threatens us today and they had a new and beautiful country of unknown potential on which to try it all out.
There was nothing of history or tradition to hinder them. They were writing the first pages of the new colony’s book. Wealth and power were there for the snatching, It was a period crackling with vitality. Everything was a weapon and a tool.
Flung in funds
They did not wait for government and paternal authority to present them with wonders sterilised and certified, tried and guaranteed safe. They flung their own funds into every wild-cat scheme that promised to tap the wonders of the modern world and make a fortune in the doing.
They looked toward America, booming and roaring away to unheard of prosperity and they intended to see that New Zealand did the same, They had been born too late to get in early on the American boom but kind fate had given them another chance in another unexplored and unexploited colony.
Fortunes were being made every day in America and every venturesome businessman in New Zealand stood as good a chance. He could start a new industry or revolutionise farming or, most hopeful of all, find gold or copper or silver or oil to feed the greedy industries of Europe. It was simply a matter of getting a good horse in one or all of these races and watching it romp home.
Not being sure where fortune would strike, it was advisable to get as big a piece of New Zealand as possible and, to pay for the upkeep of such land and make money from it to speculate, it was necessary to learn to be a farmer, to grow better wool, import better breeding stock, to study world markets closely, to learn the newest theories and methods.
So, many a would-be tycoon became a farmer.
Pace was hectic
This was the hectic pace and atmosphere of the early years of Hawke’s Bay. The sheep continued to provide the wherewithal while the sheep-owners experimented with flax and hops and tobacco and sugarbeet.
Before the freezing industry was established they tried numerous ways of preserving and shipping meat. They stocked the rivers with salmon and trout not solely for the pleasure of the fisherman but with an eye, too, on the fish market and the canning factory.
They formed prospecting companies, they drilled for oil, they mined for coal diamonds and platinum. They formed a cooperative to search for artesian water and they found it They diverted rivers and moved hills by the only available method – shovels and manpower.
Nothing was too big or too fantastic for the men of the 1870s. Bankruptcy was an occupational hazard. It happened to the best of them.
The public good
Looking back after the lapse of almost a century, one sees clearly that their single-minded pursuit of private profit resulted overwhelmingly in the public good.
To make wealthy men of themselves, they had to make a wealthy province of Hawke’s Bay and they succeeded better in the latter than in the former.
The prosperity the province enjoys today we owe to them. They were true pioneers, brawling and snatching, moulding and making, building better than they knew. They mixed high civic ideals with cashbook commonsense and, sometimes, they polished sharp-practice up into a fine art. They combined some of the beliefs and traditions of the old world with the vitality and expediency and ingenuity of the new.
Some of them were astute businessmen who drove a hard bargain, and knew all the tricks of horse trading, while others were paragons of Victorian probity and integrity.
Some were concerned only with self enrichment in everything they did while others had an inherited sense of responsibility for the general good. Some wanted to set up estates and establish themselves as the local squires they could not be at home, while others wanted only to make a fast fortune and get back to Europe to enjoy it.
Some had ideas far in advance of their day and worked to establish profit-sharing co-operatives in industry and agriculture, while others won undying fame by planting blackberry and gorse and importing rabbits to make the place look homely. They all seem to have made a hobby of quarrelling with their neighbours and nourishing feuds and hates; some of them specialised in litigation and were endlessly going to court. Letters to the editor were usually bitter and outspoken and the newspapers reported everything, every insult, every opinion, every innuendo.
Two classes of people have reason to be grateful to these men the financiers and the lawyers. The former stood by to advance money at up to 12% per cent on every hare-brained scheme and the latter picked up the pieces and supervised endless lawsuits when the schemes fell down.
Used any weapon
They took sides passionately, these men of the last century, in the continuing disagreements about harbour and river, railway and road, those issues which so seriously held up settlement. They were usually prepared to fight for the chosen faction with any weapon, blackmail and intimidation not excluded. Some of them changed sides cheerfully when it seemed expedient to do so.
They laid for Hawke’s Bay a secure and colourful foundation, generating an atmosphere all its own, giving us a historical background, rich and ropey, greedy and warm, full of life and vitality.
It is no service to these men to whitewash them and try to fit them into our insincere pattern of 20th century standards. They stand in the eyes of history just as they were, with all the faults and all the virtues of their day.
They were giants of men and they were the foundation of the Hawke’s Bay County Council.
Photo captions –
Heretaunga St west, Hastings, about 1900. The original Hastings Hotel stands on the left.
Frederick Sutton…invented Maori grog accounts.